Last summer, two mates and I set out on what turned out to be a “bridge-too-far” walking project. Switzerland is blessed with more than 60,000 km of walking trails crowned by seven iconic National Routes. The National Route 5 (which extends as the GR5 into France’s renowned “Grande Randonnée” hiking network), but is also known the Jura Crest trail, traverses the Jura mountain range for 315 km from Dielsdorf near Zurich all the way to Nyon.
Most sane people walk one of the 15 stages each day. There probably aren’t many who set out to walk the whole thing non-stop. We wanted to raise money and awareness for the Movember Foundation – aimed at stopping young men from dying young – so we figured we needed a challenging task. Walking the whole route in eight days sounded challenging enough, so off we went. The beauty of the trail over the first three days was truly breath-taking, as was the 35 degrees C temperature that knocked the energy clean out of us.
FROM JURA COOL TO CALIFORNIA BURNING
The Jura’s magnificent beech and spruce forests gave us our only respite. Gunbarrel-straight trunks rose from the ground and soared above us, reminding us of the columns in Europe’s most grand cathedrals. The trees’ crowns interlinked high above to form great green rooftops that bore the brunt of the burning sun. The temperature on the ground, where we were walking, was at least 5 degrees C cooler than the surrounding towns and farmland. It was still hot and humid, but as the trails climbed into the forests, our cooked souls were, if only temporarily, uplifted by the forest’s cool, life-giving beauty.
Elsewhere, forests were burning. We’d started our walk with the sad knowledge that vast areas of Swedish forests had recently burnt to cinders, an occurrence so rare that few can remember there ever being such devastation so far north. In the US, particularly in California, massive conflagrations raged out of control. And in not so wintry Australia, forests burned there, too.
Trees are dying the world over en masse. Many are cooking in their own juices or falling victim to pests and disease, weakened by long droughts and excessive temperatures. All through our hike, I noticed dead and dying trees; their scorched, limp leaves turning yellow far too soon for traditional displays of autumn colour. Right across the world, people drive heavy machinery through these magnificent, green cathedrals. They are tearing them down in the name of progress, creating plantations and farms to supply agricultural commodities to an ever-expanding, hungry global population.
OUR NATURAL FOREST CATHEDRALS ARE DISAPPEARING
Many of us love forests and the animals and plants they support, not to mention the cool beauty they provide on breathless and sticky, hot summer days. That’s great but their accelerated demise at the hands of human-induced climate change and development-oriented clearance represents a multiple whammy.
Trees store lots of carbon and the forest soils on which they grow also harbour vast amounts themselves.
When forests die – either through fire and drought, or when we people clear them – all that carbon is released back into the atmosphere. That’s not good. In fact, it is worse. Trees are no longer there to take it back out again; it’s bad news on bad.
That said, we shouldn’t just look at this through the lens of climate change. Forests, particularly in the tropics, are home to great biodiversity. They support many of the world’s remaining indigenous peoples. They also provide food, shelter, medicine and spiritual sanctuary to millions of the world’s poorest. All these things are being lost at rates so fast and over such vast distances that those working to protect the last remaining forests can’t keep up. The result is that we despair.
WHAT TO DO?
I ask myself this question on a daily basis. What to do indeed?
Yes, you can sign petitions. You can stop buying foods that have a deforestation footprint. And you might even protest and throw yourself in front of a bulldozer somewhere in the world. That’s what people do. But it seems to me that few of these approaches are making much headway. So what can we do to make a difference?
If you live in a city or if you’re young, isn’t this all happening somewhere else in the world? You’re not really confronted by it, so you may consider it an issue beyond your reach. And besides, you’re a mere drop in this vast ocean of catastrophe and loss.
Physically, you may indeed feel far removed. But whether young or old, a high school student or a banker, there is something each of us can do in our own place, where we each live. We can fall in love again with the forest’s simple majestic beauty. We need to stop a minute from our rushing world and appreciate the forest’s beauty.
Experience the sun glinting from high above onto a young green leaf on the forest floor below. And imagine pixies and fairies playing beneath the towering crowns, up and down, round and round, playing, running, dashing for cover when we humans come thumping with our big boots and puffing backpacks. Smell the scent of a forest after rainfall. Hold the hand of a loved one in the cool under the cathedral spires.
If we can experience and fall in love with a forest on our doorstep, perhaps that love can radiate to others? It’s not a traditional militant approach, but right now, such initiatives are blatantly not working. When things get complex, go simple.
We didn’t make it to Nyon in our eight-day Jura mountain march. Instead we took ten – and had a rest day to boot. It was a bridge-too-far ambition to hike so far in such a short time, but we finished with the glow of having been nourished by the magnificent forests we passed along the way. And maybe, just maybe, that radiance can light a path to protect those forests and to implore us to action to save forests everywhere. I think it’s worth a try.
SCOTT POYNTON is an Australian forester who lives in Switzerland. He is founder of The Forest Trust, formerly The Tropical Forest Trust, which seeks to transform supply chains for people and nature. He is still working with the organization today and is heavily involved in working with young people to make them more aware about the state of the world’s forests – and what they can do to protect them.
This article was first published by Global Geneva.